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Mike Zafirovski is trying to mount one of history's great comebacks, the turnaround of faded telecom champion Nortel Networks Corp.

Twenty months into his tenure as CEO, the 53-year-old executive - who has homes in both Toronto and Chicago - conducts a rare interview in his spartan third-floor office with its view of Toronto's Highway 427.

Do you pay attention to all the noise, such as the blogs that focus on Nortel?

It does good to create jobs for people. With all those blogs, it is another way we are helping the Canadian economy.

But don't you feel pressure from critics?

I admire Mayor Daley of Chicago. He loves what he does, and he has no other aspirations, just to make Chicago the best city in the world.

The last time I had dinner with him, I asked about all the speculation of cronyism in the mayor's office and he said, 'Mike, I don't read anything local ... I have an agenda for the long term. I don't read blogs or what people say about me. If you do, you go crazy.' In the same way, we have some pretty aggressive targets in customer and employee satisfaction, in recruiting programs to develop leaders, in improving our financials. That is what keeps me awake.

So you block out the static?

I know what it is, but it does not affect me. I know there have been concerns about chat sites both here and at Motorola, but it's normally unhappy people on those sites anyway. You can get preoccupied and then you try to run a popularity contest.

Don't you agree Nortel has to acquire something now?

With respect to acquisitions, 80 per cent of them fail. But I've done 80 to 90 acquisitions in my life and I'm pretty comfortable that the majority were done well.

I'm not prejudiced on where growth is going to come from - organically or through acquisitions. But we are committed to growth, and we have earned the right. Last year, we did not have the systems, the foundation, the processes to manage our company well, let alone integrate somebody else.

You are known as an operator, a fixer, but the question is whether you can be a visionary leader.

Boy, that's an interesting observation. I am very confident that everything I have touched has been very transformational and inspirational for the employees and the businesses.

Jack Welch does not throw compliments easily but when I was at GE, I got lots of kudos for doing that. The way we repositioned the handset business in Motorola was among the most strategic turnarounds.

In Nortel, we're trying to see what the world is becoming. We can see three mega-trends - hyper-connectivity (all these devices will be connected), a real need for mobile broadband, and applications will completely change. Everything we're doing is about how to leapfrog ...

Anyone can manage for the short term - they can squeeze and look fantastic. Anyone can appear to be a visionary, and come up with a speech on what will happen in 2013. But great companies find ways to do both at the same time.

What was the old Nortel's big mistake?

The problems, which accumulated over a number of years, lay in the culture of performance and execution. Many people were excellent on their own, but as a company meeting due dates and financial targets, it was simply not part of the DNA.

Also, Nortel used to have some of the best processes in the world in developing people, communications, and developing products. But in late 1999-early 2000, there was the view that the market was moving so fast, if you had a structured process, you'd never be able to keep up with the newcomers. So a lot of Nortel's old processes were thrown away with a view to having a faster, go-to-market process.

They lost discipline?

Absolutely and we have tried to put those things back in place.

So they got caught up in the hype of the 1990s?

There was a level of growth expectations. Many acquisitions were made and the systems were not integrated. Lots of the accounting issues came out of manual processes on top of manual processes.

So after Nortel has been kicked around, how do you

revive the spirit?

Set high bars and be very consistent in delivering the same message. I am a student of leadership. I love to study leaders in politics, business, sports and the military. These things do not happen overnight. We are not looking for a 50-year turnaround but we did say on Day One it would be three to five years to recreate something special.

How do you rate your media coverage?

Pretty balanced. Of course, if you restate your books No. 3 and No. 4 [times] nobody is going to give you a standing ovation.

Still, I think people are being reasonably good in articulating what we are trying to accomplish, but praise alone will not deliver the results.

How much time do you spend at head office?

Not enough to get to know Toronto - probably about 20 per cent of my time.

Typically when you get a new assignment, the first year you spend a disproportionate time visiting employees and customers.

I expect to get the time on the road down to 50 per cent as 2007 winds down.

There is a famous picture from Fortune magazine in 1999. Jack Welch is waving his arms, and you seem to be the target of his wrath.

Jack was always in your face, but I can't recall ever having a bad experience with the guy. Even today, I might use different processes but sometimes I just close my eyes and say, 'If Welch had the same challenge, what would he do?'

Are you much like him?

I hope I'm inspirational, very direct, very transparent, but probably not confrontational. That is a different style that works for different people. But it's not necessary.

Do you still endorse the GE approach of brutal honesty with people and pruning the lowest performers?

Brutally honest does not mean you have to be abrasive. [At GE]we fired many people who are still my close friends.

I never looked forward to doing it, but I have become very accustomed to it.

The process is good for the company - and you give people second or third chances if they have the values and put in the effort.

That still sounds harsh.

If it is a surprise to the employee, you've done a very poor job in communicating. Be very honest, set the goals very high, and people who have tried hard should get a soft landing. You help them find jobs elsewhere.

I see you as the model of a disciplined manager. But isn't there the danger you will just hire clones of yourself?

I take tough actions, but the discipline did not come naturally. It is not a fixed formula. If you look at my direct reports, we're as different as anybody. Discipline is something I've worked very hard to get to, but it is not the single definition of Mike Zafirovski.

Do you get any quiet time

to think?

All the time, and the best time is when I'm exercising. I try to do some exercise every day.

I sleep very well and I don't worry. When I hear the word worry, it suggests paralysis, indecision. I make decisions all the time and I very rarely ever look back. I need four or five hours of sleep a night.

How do you convince the stock market that Nortel

is for real?

Deliver. We have been pretty transparent in describing the challenges. We're thinking in multiple of times over current stock prices a number of years down the road. Not overnight but if we deliver, that is the opportunity we have.

Mike Zafirovski

Born: Nov. 14, 1953, in Macedonia; emigrated to U.S. as a 16-year-old

Education: BA in mathematics, Edinboro University, Pennsylvania

Career Highlights:

1975 to 2000: Served with General Electric in a succession of senior executive positions: president and CEO, GE Lighting; president, GE Capital Mortgage Corporation; president and CEO, GE Capital Fleet Services.

2000: Joined Motorola as president and CEO, personal communications sector.

2002 to 2005: President and chief operating officer of Motorola. Passed over as CEO, he left the company in early 2005.

Nov. 15, 2005: Became CEO of Nortel

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